Lee Morgan (July 10, 1938 – February 19, 1972) was an American jazz trumpeter and composer. One of the key hard bop musicians of the 1960s, Morgan came to prominence in his late teens, recording on John Coltrane‘s Blue Train (1957) and with the band of drummer Art Blakey before launching a solo career. Morgan stayed with Blakey until 1961 and started to record as leader soon after. His song “The Sidewinder“, on the album of the same name, became a surprise crossover hit on the pop and R&B charts in 1964, while Morgan’s recordings found him touching on other styles of music as his artistry matured. Soon after The Sidewinder was released, Morgan rejoined Blakey for a short period. After leaving Blakey for the final time, Morgan continued to work prolifically as both a leader and a sideman with the likes of Hank Mobleyand Wayne Shorter, becoming a cornerstone of the Blue Note label.
Morgan’s career was cut short at the age of 33 when his common-law wife Helen shot and killed him following a confrontation at Slug’s Saloon. Edward Lee Morgan was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on July 10, 1938, the youngest of Otto Ricardo and Nettie Beatrice Morgan’s four children.
Originally interested in the vibraphone, he soon showed a growing enthusiasm for the trumpet. Morgan also knew how to play the alto saxophone. On his thirteenth birthday, his sister Ernestine gave him his first trumpet. His primary stylistic influence was Clifford Brown, with whom he took a few lessons as a teenager.
Morgan recorded prolifically from 1956 until a day before his death in February 1972. He joined Dizzy Gillespie‘s Big Band at 18 and remained as a member for a year and a half until economic circumstances forced Gillespie to disband the unit in 1958. Morgan began recording for Blue Note in 1956, eventually recording 25 albums as a leader for the label. He also recorded on the Vee-Jay label and one album for Riverside Records on its short-lived Jazzland subsidiary. He was a featured sideman on several early Hank Mobley records, and intermittently thereafter. On John Coltrane‘s only Blue Note album as a leader, Blue Train (1957), he played a trumpet with an angled bell (given to him by Gillespie).
Joining Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers in 1958 further developed his talent as a soloist and composer. He toured with Blakey for a few years and was featured on numerous albums by the Messengers, including Moanin’, which is one of the band’s best-known recordings. When Benny Golson left the Jazz Messengers, Morgan persuaded Blakey to hire Wayne Shorter, a young tenor saxophonist, to fill the chair. This version of the Jazz Messengers, including pianist Bobby Timmons and bassist Jymie Merritt, recorded many albums during 1959–61, including for Blue Note Africaine, The Big Beat, A Night in Tunisia and The Freedom Rider. During his time with The Jazz Messengers, Morgan also wrote several tunes including The Midget, Haina, Celine, Yama, Kozo’s Waltz, Pisces, and Blue Lace. The drug problems of Morgan and Timmons forced them to leave the band in 1961, and the trumpeter returned to Philadelphia, his hometown. According to Tom Perchard, a Morgan biographer, it was Blakey who introduced the trumpeter to heroin, which impeded his progression in his career.